Journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy was funded under the summer 2015 round of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to travel to Cambodia to report on the international garment industry based in the country and the impact of tourism on the historically poor nation that relied on a feudal agricultural economy. This is the third of Deirdre’s blog posts from Cambodia.
Our visit to a garment factory on Tuesday was a major contrast to today’s interviews, with the founders and suppliers of Banteay Srey Boutique.
A small online start-up store offering beautifully made classic garments – the white shirt, the black maxi – Banteay Srey was the brainchild of Wexford native Carol Murphy and her business partner Rathavann Ke, or Kim, who’s from Siem Reap.
They realised the fabrics, designs and exquisite tailoring of Cambodia could really find a market in the wider world, and sought to find a way. It hasn’t been easy, and the business is still in start-up stage, but the ethos and quality shine through.
These shrewd businesswomen who negotiate their rates without blinking, are a far cry from the factory workers of the mass market, glad to have any job that pays regularly.
This morning we visited tailor Oun, who employs a number of other women in her small home workshop. She, along with Carol and Kim, designs the clothes, and her team make them to the customer’s measurements.
Oun gets paid approximately $20 to make a dress – as Carol points out, the same price you’d pay for it in Penneys – and she pays her workers $220 per month. She drives a hard bargain, and spending some time with them, you can see which way the power dynamic goes.
Today we also met Carol and Kim’s jewellery supplier, Rani, from Jivit Thmey jewellery. Rani is head of operations at a large hotel in Siem Reap; her husband also has a good job. She decided to start the business after visiting the shooting range with her husband and seeing bullet cases wasted on the ground.
Her aim from day one was to help poor Cambodians rise out of poverty – she is too young to remember the war, but she describes her family’s story of nothing to eat but rice and water, and the devastating poverty and trauma that resulted.
The first artisan she trained ended up bringing his entire family – wife, children, brothers – to live and work in the workshop. With his wages from making jewellery he was able to buy a tuk tuk (small motorbike taxi with a carriage on the back), and start his own business. His brother runs a juice stall, and the family has moved onwards and upwards as a result.
Currently Rani has four employees and sells her goods to Banteay Srey, to a US company specialising in ethnic crafts, and at markets here in Siem Reap.
Rani’s the first person to mention the war to me.
“My father had five brothers, and he is the only one left. All my uncles were killed by Pol Pot. It’s a very bad memory for the old people. We lost a lot of talented people.”
As she describes her family’s experience – no food, risking capital punishment to steal it – Kim chimes in.
“They killed all the talented people with knowledge and education. My mother lost her parents and her two sisters, they starved to death.”
Kim was born in 1979, and when she tells me this, she and Rani exchange smiles. There’s a joke – a black sort of joke – about Cambodians born at that time, because nobody was free to marry by choice. Kim’s mother had been forced to marry a Khmer Rouge soldier and Kim is the result of that marriage. When the war ended, they split, and he went to Australia. Although he invited his wife and child to join him there, Kim’s mother decided to move on with her life and away from what Cambodians call “the Pol Pot time”, and she remarried, happily this time.
What strikes me most about Khmer people is their positivity. It’s a cliche, but every single person I have spoken to feels strongly that their children will have a better life than them, and that they can work towards that. I’ve seen other places where people have survived terrible war and trauma – in Rwanda and Haiti, few people meet your eyes, and even fewer smile by instinct – but here, there is a feeling of hope in the air.
Although Banteay Srey Boutique is currently an online operation – Carol, who lives in Perth, found it very difficult to get a foothold in the Australian market due to Australia’s draconian import laws – there are plans to open a store in the Netherlands, where she is due to move soon with her partners. They also plan to look for more international stockists.
For now, though, you can check out their collection at http://www.banteaysreyboutique.com/.